Dealing with Loss and Depression

Student Story: Dylan

It takes time for any person to work through grief and loss. But with teens, it’s sometimes hard to tell they’re struggling until they’ve crossed from sadness into despair. This weekend on Parenting Today’s Teens, Mark Gregston teaches parents how to recognize signs of depression and help their teens cope.

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Suicide Epidemic Among Teens

For a teenager to be so unbearably unhappy that he would choose to kill himself is something that is almost too painful for a parent to think about. But with the increasing prevalence of teen suicide, no parent can afford to ignore the possibility. Suicide is now the third leading cause of death for high school students.

Kids look at this world as being more and more hopeless.  And many are choosing suicide as their solution. When I was in high school — a school with 3,000 students — I never knew of any of my peers committing suicide. And even working in Young Life after college, suicide among teens was a very unusual event that we rarely heard of.

Fact is, before the 1960’s, suicide by adolescents happened only rarely; but today, nearly one in ten teens contemplates suicide, and over 500,000 attempt it each year. While suicide rates for all other ages have dropped, suicides among teens have nearly tripled.

Between the sexes, teen boys are more than four times as likely to commit suicide as girls. But girls are known to think about and attempt suicide about twice as often as boys. The difference is the method; girls attempt suicide by overdosing on drugs or cutting themselves, and thankfully most are found in time and rescued. Boys tend to use more lethal methods, such as firearms, hanging, or jumping from heights.

The Warning Signs

Teen suicide is a teen’s last attempt to ease the pain, to make a statement, or it is just a wrong decision giving a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  Teens don’t see the bigger picture; they only see the “right now.”  They get wrapped up in the emotions of the moment and tend to only think about a week ahead — that’s all.  And when you mix immature short-sightedness with feelings of utter hopelessness, some kids think they cannot live with the pain another day. Other kids who contemplate suicide are filled with rage over teasing by their peers or the way they feel they’ve been mistreated by family. They choose suicide as a tragic form of payback.

That reminds me of Kerri. She was the “perfect kid.” She loved church, was involved in mission projects, was adored by her brothers, and stayed away from sex, drugs, and alcohol. Her parents allowed their stunning daughter to date at age 16. But on her first date, the guy tried to go too far, and Kerri was shocked and stunned by the encounter. Her parents asked about the date, and she shared what had happened. Kerri’s father, in the heat of the moment, blamed Kerri. His words verbally crucified his daughter. When Kerri stated that what this boy did made her want to commit suicide, her dad said she didn’t have the guts to do it. Feeling devalued and misunderstood, Kerri decided to show her dad how gutsy she really was. She got into her parents’ medicine cabinet and took 30 sleeping pills. Kerri’s parents had no idea what the fight had done to their daughter until dad came upstairs to apologize, found Kerri asleep, and couldn’t wake her. She awoke a few hours later after being rushed to the emergency room and having her stomach pumped. She wasn’t rebellious; she was just sending her dad a message. If she showed her dad that he was wrong about her being too afraid to kill herself, she could prove he was also wrong about the way she handled her date.

Like Kerri, most teens contemplating suicide give some type of warning to friends or loved ones ahead of time. It can be subtle and or it can be blurted out in a rage.  Either way, it’s important for parents to watch for those threats or warning signs and take them seriously, so their teen can get the help they need.

Parents should be aware of these other warning signs that their teenager may be having suicidal thoughts:

  • They may begin to isolate themselves, pulling away from friends or family
  • They may no longer participate in what was their favorite things or activities
  • They may have recently developed trouble thinking clearly
  • They may have changes in their personality (darker, more anxious, or non-caring)
  • They may be experiencing changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • They may talk about suicide or death in general
  • They may express feelings of hopelessness or guilt
  • They may exhibit self-destructive behavior (substance abuse, dangerous driving, recklessness, excessive risk taking)
  • They may have changes in their personal hygiene and appearance
  • They may complain about anxiety-related physical problems (stomachaches, headaches, hives, fatigue, blurred vision)
  • They may have difficulty accepting praise or rewards.

If you see any of these signs in your teen, talk to them about your concerns and seek professional help from a physician or a qualified mental health professional. With the support of family and appropriate treatment, teenagers who are suicidal can heal and return to more healthy thinking.

If you ever hear your teen say, “I’m going to kill myself,” or “I’m going to commit suicide,” always take such statements seriously and immediately seek assistance from a qualified mental health professional. Don’t walk away. Don’t wait.  Get them to a hospital immediately, even if they don’t want to go or say they were just fooling with you.

Hospitalization is needed whenever a teen is a danger to himself.  Extreme cutting, bizarre behavior, extreme depression, suicidal thoughts, or excessive drug or alcohol use coupled with emotional issues are just a few of the symptoms that might warrant hospitalization. A parent shouldn’t hesitate to hospitalize their child if they fear for their life. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

It’s also important to be proactive in regard to making sure that the main tools of committing suicide are not readily available to a suicidal teen.  For boys, lock up guns in the house so they are not accessible.  For girls, monitor razor blades and make sure drugs like sleeping pills and pain killers are not accessible in your house. You may need to regularly go through her dresser, purse, backpack and closet to make sure she isn’t storing any herself that she’s bought or gotten from friends. And when a suicidal girl is taking a bath, knock on the door periodically to get a response.

Be Sure to Talk About It

If you see mild warning signs, asking your teen if he or she is depressed or thinking about suicide can be helpful. Such questions filled with love and concern will provide assurance that you care and will give them the chance to talk about their problems. Get them to commit to you that if they ever do have those thoughts, they’ll let you or someone else know.  If your teen doesn’t feel comfortable talking with you, suggest a more neutral person, such as another relative, a counselor, a pastor, a coach, or your child’s doctor.

It’s important to keep the lines of communication open and express your concern, support, and love. If your teen confides in you their loss of hope or control of their life, show that you take those concerns seriously. It’s important not to minimize, mock or discount what your teen is going through, as this can increase his or her sense of hopelessness.

Depression Can Lead to Suicide

Each year, thousands of at-risk teens are diagnosed with clinical depression. Most of the signs of depression are the same as suicide warning signs, so depression needs your attention.  If left untreated or ignored, it can be a devastating illness for the teen and their family and it can lead to suicide.

There are different treatments for depression, but keep in mind that teen depression is often not treated the same as depression in adults. There are medications available to help teens with depression, but typically they are needed only temporarily. Treatment of teen depression must involve regular counseling and close supervision, since some medical treatments can make the depression more severe before they take full effect and begin helping. The good news is that most teens grow out of depression in a few years.

A depressed teen may have been having relational problems at home or is being picked on or bullied at school. But usually severe depression comes from another problem in their life such as an eating disorder, drug addiction, physical abuse, loss, or medical condition. Some teens just need to eat a better diet and get more sleep at night, but depression and suicidal thoughts are not something I’d recommend anyone treat with home remedies. A depressed teen generally doesn’t have the ability or strength to solve their own depression.  Attempting to help “shake them out of it” can cause the depression and despair to deepen, since it only serves to point out their own failure to improve their life.

What’s A Parent To Do?

If you are the parent of a depressed or suicidal teen, it’s important that you try to understand them, listen to them and try not to be accusing. Respect your teen’s opinions and problems and avoid blaming them or yourself for their feelings. Being a teenager is hard today and your child is justified in their feelings, even if you may not agree or understand. When you realize this, you can help your child.

Remain in contact; even if you no longer have any control over your child’s life.  It can make all the difference.  Do what you can to bring family members and the friends they’ve abandoned back into their life. Get out family pictures and videos to show them better times.

No matter what mischief your child is doing in their life, hope is needed more than judgment at this time.  So encourage them by getting them out to experience good things that can add abundance to their life.  Sometimes it helps to ask a positive-thinking relative to take them into their home for a time to give the teen a change of scenery.  Get them on a good diet.  Get them outdoors to soak in some vitamin D.  Regular exercise really helps.  And find a loving pet that they can take care of.  Having the responsibility for a pet can sometimes cause a teen to think twice before taking themselves out of the picture.  It also gives them a “pal” to talk to who is totally loyal and non-condemning.  Finally, plan fun events several months in the future that they can look forward to, and keep reminding them of that date.  For teenagers, the point is to create a bridge to help them get past this period of hopelessness and into a better mindset.

Please don’t be slow in getting professional help.  I’ve seen many hundreds of teenagers who have become different people from medication designed to correct a deficiency in their developing brain.  Others are helped by regular counseling to deal with their inner issues, or with treatment for their drug habit or other addictions in their life.  Get the help your teen needs, before they become a statistic.


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program.  Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.

What’s this Teen “Cutting” Thing?

What’s this Teen “Cutting” Thing?Some young people today live in a world that goes “over the edge.” The “edge” of pain doesn’t stop them in their pursuit of eliminating boredom and creating excitement. Piercing, branding, cutting, tattoos, cosmetic surgery, reality shows, and expressive and permissive movies are now a part of the culture. Some say that kids are more “daring” and “extreme.”  I say they’re numb and dissatisfied…and pain is a way for some to remind themselves that they’re still alive, a comment I hear from a number of cutters.  Sadly, finding a kid who “cuts” (a form of self harm) is pretty common today.  A topic that 20 years was unheard of on the radio or in Christian social circles is the focus of many discussions among parents and commonplace among teens.

I used to think that cutting was always a symptom of a greater problem like mental illness, sexual abuse, or other crazy behaviors that sometimes fall into that category of “different” and only understood with an explanation of psychiatric jargon. Some cutting behaviors can be symptomatic of psychiatric or mental illness (e.g. borderline personality disorders, bi-polar or manic depressiveness, and anxiety disorders) but not all are.

Not just “crazy people do crazy things.” Kids that cut themselves come from all walks of life, from all backgrounds, and from every type of family you can think of. What was once confined to mental hospitals has for teens become a new way of coping and has entered the mainstream of discussion among our teens. It’s here, and it doesn’t look like it will disappear any time soon any more than any other inappropriate behavior.

What is Cutting?

Simply put, it’s a cut or many cuts that are self-inflicted. The actual behavior is just the symptom of something else going on in your child’s life. The fact that they “chose” cutting as the behavior to get somewhere else is because it is “available,” “acceptable” (in their world), and it is “achievable.”

All behavior is goal-oriented. Your child’s goal with cutting is coping with whatever is causing stress in his or her life. Cutting is chosen because it has been talked about at school, internet, networking sites or something that others are doing.  Cutting distracts a teen from whatever causes the negative feelings she’s had, and she gets some temporary relief.

Now, you and I probably do a similar “dance,” we just dance to some different music. We go run for an hour. We work out. We go to a movie. We do whatever we do in hopes of feeling something different for a short period of time. Young people are no different. Cutting takes their minds off of their cares.

Cutting is a serious issue, however, and it can lead to a lifetime of shame and despair. For a child to go to such lengths to find relief is scary. So, don’t ignore it. I’ve observed that most that “cut” or “scratch” have expended or tried other ways of negative coping with particular issues and are willing to do just about anything short of suicide to get through whatever they’re dealing with.


1. The Experimental Cutter

These kids may be cutting for no reason at all. They just want to know what it feels like and, more times than not, just scratch or touch themselves with a hot utensil, learning quickly that what all the fuss is about, is not about them. They walk away and never revisit the “cutting thing” again.

2. The Show-Off Cutter

The one who cuts to show off goes a little further than the one who is captivated by experiment and intrigue. This is one who has the tendency to be a drama queen, perhaps thrive on conflict, and displays self-centeredness in sometimes the oddest of ways. They thrive in negative attention for it is better than no attention. Feeling a lack of positives to display to gain attention, they hope to attract through showing off negatives. The more attention they can get from their actions the better. They happen to pick up cutting because it just happens to be the thing that gains attention.

3. The Shock Cutter

Some cut for the shock factor. They look at you and let you know that you don’t have control over them while they express a strong desire for independence and their own control. People wonder why some kids cut, and my response is always, “It’s got your attention doesn’t it?”

4. The Rebellious Cutter

These cutters differ from the shockers. While shockers usually do it as a cry for something, these are doing something to make you cry. They are bent on causing misery for someone else, and are willing to endure the pain to see the person suffer. It is not self-harm in their eyes…it’s done to harm you, to embarrass you. Their anger is so intense that they would sacrifice themselves to make you miserable. Their actions are dominated by a “screw you” mentality that is deep rooted in anger. It may be a type of thought process that includes the following:

– Mom and Dad, look how you guys have messed up my life…now you’ll pay.

– Why did you allow this to happen to me?

– I’ll show everyone….look what they’ve done to me?

– You think I have it all together? I’ll show you!

5. The Self-Punishment Cutter

This is the type of cutter that becomes a little more serious, a whole lot deeper in the issues, and necessitates a recovery process that demands counseling and help with thinking patterns behind the actions of cutting. It’s a longer process, and this type of cutter, along with those listed below (distraction, coping, guilt & shame, and mental issues) may require hospitalization, other professional help, or intense supervision as one must be kept safe (free from cutting) during the process of counseling and therapy.

6. The Distraction Cutter

It’s hard to imagine pain so great that creating more pain would take the focus off the original pain. This is a common answer that I hear to the question of why teens cut.

7. The Coping Skill Cutter

Several times I have been so mad in my life that I’ve just wanted to punch the wall or put my fist through the wall, or hit something. The anger builds up, the intensity increases and bam, it happens. It’s the same thing when some young people cut. It’s that release of intensity. Some call it anger management with the excuse that “it’s better to hurt myself than someone else”.

8. Mental Issues and Cutting

There are times that cutting is a sign of mental issues. Mental problems are rooted in incorrect thinking patterns that are sometimes displayed in bizarre behaviors. Cutting can be one of those “bizarre behaviors.”

Dealing with Cutters

The key to resolution of any issue is to get to the heart of the issue. And the best way to get to the heart of the issue is through a relationship….one that says to them, “I’ll walk with you through anything, and I’ll stand in front of you if you’re moving to a place that you don’t want to be.” That’s the easy part. The hard part is taking apart the puzzle and seeing the logic, progression, thinking, and habits have moved this cutter to where he/she is.

I would encourage you to consider these thoughts when dealing with a child you find to be a cutter.

1. Don’t panic. If medical attention is needed for your child’s cutting, then get that medical attention immediately. A cut is a cut regardless of how it got there. This should be your first concern. You must do whatever you need to do to insure their safety.

2. Don’t neglect the obvious or be afraid to talk about cutting if you think your child is doing so. Keep asking, in hopes of finding an “open door” for discussion. If that door is closed, it is imperative that you try some new techniques to get the door open or immediately find someone for your son/daughter to talk to. And if your child is not willing, you seek counsel to determine ways to force your child to respond to the situation.

3. Seek counsel. Every child is different, and so is every situation. Unless one has been around cutting and had experience dealing with self-harm issues, or has done so themselves and have worked through their issues, I wouldn’t put too much hope in that person being able to “connect” with your child. Finding the right counselor is key, and driving a couple of hundred miles to meet with them is not asking too much in dealing with a behavior and mindset that is going to require wisdom, tenacity, and gentle but firm intervention.

4. In some cases, apply consequences for cutting when determined to be effective. As I’ve said, not all cutters need to be given “discipline” for cutting. Determine that need based upon the counsel, wisdom, and direction from those who have been involved with cutters and know the steps to resolve.

5. Connect with the cutter in other ways that aren’t surrounded by cutting issues. A parent or youth worker is not using wisdom in pursuing the issues of teens with them without having some type of relationship. Most kids want to know that they’ll continued to be loved even when they mess up. It’s easy to love someone when they’re doing well….its harder when they’re not doing so well. They want to know the latter.

6. Don’t be afraid of having your child on medication. If it is going to help them think better, pull out of their depression, or balance their emotions, then I would encourage it. Medicine is medicine, and it’s beneficial whether its in the arena of dentistry or psychiatry.

7. Develop a system of accountability around your child with family and friends. Most people wait to show the desire to develop relationships with their child after the problems arise. Have the relationship intact before the difficult years arrive. And if you think that you’re child is immune from having issues, or that they aren’t capable of struggle through their teen years, I would suggest that you pull your head out of the sand.

8. Get to the root of the issue. Remember, it’s not the behavior that is the issue. Just getting your child to stop cutting will not solve the problems. Ignore the deeper issues and you’ll find that they’ll pop up disguised as other behaviors.

9. Don’t minimize the problem or think that this really isn’t as big as everyone thinks it is. Cutting is not an attempt at suicide. But, there are those that have committed suicide who have been cutters. Moms and Dads, this is serious stuff and its going to demand serious (and immediate) help. Ignoring the obvious could prove catastrophic.

10. Do whatever you have to do to insure your child’s safety. This may mean that they are supervised 24-7. It may mean that they need to be hospitalized.

Remember, all behavior is goal oriented.  You can stop the cutting and never get to the real issue behind the cutting.  So managing the cutting is essential, getting to the root of the behavior is paramount.

 About the Author

Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 39 years, has two kids, and 4 grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, 2 llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.  His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with over 2,500 teens, has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents.

Visit www.HeartlightMinistries.org to find out more about the residential counseling center for teens, or call Heartlight directly at 903. 668.2173.  For more information and helpful other resources for moms and dads, visit www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org, It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. Here you will also find a station near you where you can listen to the Parenting Today’s Teens radio broadcast, or download the podcast of the most recent programs.